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This Is Only Getting Bigger: 20,000 Rally in New York to Support Occupy Wall Street

Despite another clash with police, the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to gain support as unions and community groups march in solidarity.

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“Naturally we would join,” said Lisanne McTerran, a New York City teacher wearing her United Federation of Teachers hat. She pointed out that the unions have been in this fight for a while, noting that UFT had marched down Wall Street back in May to protest continued banker power. McTerran is an art teacher by trade, but has been working as a substitute since New York’s school budget cuts.

“Arts are the first thing they cut,” she said, handing out a flyer that points out that budget cuts have led directly to the loss of over 100,000 jobs. “Bloomberg wants to bust the teachers’ union,” she said.

The official, permitted rally began at 4pm and it seemed strange to hear the sound of a loudspeaker broadcasting speeches as we approached in a crowd from Liberty Plaza. The crowd of occupiers still communicated on the move using the “people’s mic,” repeating each other’s words back, and it did seem that the union leaders who spoke took a page from the activists in the square, keeping their words brief and powerful, stoking the crowd's excitement at the popular support they were receiving. The organizers at Occupy Wall Street have been reaching out to labor from the beginning, and their efforts were paying off. 

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Stuart Appelbaum, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) New York City local RWDSU, told the crowd that he had a message for Mayor Bloomberg. “If your police department overreacts again like it did last Saturday, stifling dissent and limiting free speech, New Yorkers will not stand for it!”

Héctor Figueroa of SEIU’s 32BJ, the building service workers’ union, made the connection between the occupiers in Liberty Plaza and the international protests that have echoed around the world in recent months, declaring, “Nosotros somos los indignados del Nueva York, los indignadoes del Estados Unidos, los indignados del mundo!” 

It was a sentiment heard at my  first visit  to the occupation, when I met Spanish activist Monica Lopez, who had been part of Spain’s “Indignados” movement. Lopez has been back to Spain and is now back again at the Liberty Plaza occupation, taking photos and working the media table.

“It’s the right thing at the right time after so many mistakes,” Thomas Blewitt, told me when I asked why he was involved in this movement. Blewitt, a former member of ACT UP in a trim shirt and tie, was one of the many defying the popular image of the protesters as all young hippies. He explained that he’d cared for his mother until her death and between Medicare and the AARP, ”That system works." Everyone, he pointed out, deserves the same access to health care.

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Health care was also on the minds of the National Nurses United, which came out in force with professionally printed signs declaring support for Occupy Wall Street on one side--and calling for a financial transactions tax on the other, as the union has been for months. “It’s catching on like wildfire,” Pam Merriman, a nurse from the University of Chicago, told me.

“The hardest pill to swallow,” her colleague Talisa Hardin said, “is America is hurting, and when you look at how well corporations are doing, it doesn’t seem fair.”

The nurses’ president, Karen Higgins, spoke at the rally as well. “We’re sick of the greed!” she told the crowd. “As nurses, we can fix that.”

And Merriman reiterated: “The nurses will not be moved.”

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Lindsay Personett, a recent graduate in dance performance from Oklahoma City University, was handing out flyers that read “I Owe SallieMae,” and offering a marker to fellow grads who’ve found themselves in debt to the loan giant. “Kids are told to get this expensive degree and you’ll get a job,” she said. “You end up owing too much and owning nothing.”